Friday 24 May 2019

'If we play to our best, we can match anyone,' insists bullish Rodgers

Celtic's Brendan Rodgers Photo: PA
Celtic's Brendan Rodgers Photo: PA

Roddy Forsyth

Moscow occupies a curious status in Celtic's chronicles, a trend that will be extended if Brendan Rodgers steers the Hoops past Zenit St Petersburg to a place in tomorrow's draw for the last 16 of the Europa League. Despite the city's reputation for inhospitable receptions to foreign interlopers, Celtic have found their recent visits to be productive.

Tony Mowbray, whose record in Glasgow was nondescript, nevertheless became the first manager to follow a home defeat in Europe with a victory away to the same opposition when his players lost 1-0 to Dynamo at Celtic Park in the 2009 Champions League qualifiers but advanced with a 2-0 win in the Russian capital.

In 2012, Neil Lennon supervised Celtic's first away success in the Champions League group stage when they beat Spartak 3-2. Now Rodgers has the opportunity to accomplish a feat that seemed distinctly unlikely only a couple of weeks ago, when Celtic stumbled to defeat at Kilmarnock.

Qualification for European football after Christmas was merited because of a 3-0 Champions League group-stage victory over Anderlecht in Belgium, in which Celtic's tactical and physical superiority set them on course for third place in their section, behind Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich.

The presence of the French and German superpowers was responsible for Celtic conceding 18 goals, more than any other side at that stage of the tournament.

Zenit, by contrast, scored 17 to enter the Europa League knockout stage as the competition's most prolific contenders.

Moreover, Roberto Mancini's side never failed to score during their group matches, but Celtic's well-known frailty in central defence - plus a dispiriting injury roster - could not be exploited in the first leg at Parkhead by a Zenit side ring-rusty after a winter break that saw them in action for the first time since early December.

Although he had inserted careful caveats when he spoke about Celtic's prospects before the first leg in Glasgow, Rodgers did not leave himself open to an indictment of false modesty ahead of the return.

"We played a perfect game really in how the players defended and attacked," he said.

"Of course, we would have liked to have had more goals but the concentration and our quality in our game was at a very high level. We know that over the course of the two legs we need to replicate that but the players are ready.

"They showed last week they can play. If they play with that aggression, quality and intensity, then it gives us a great opportunity.

"Our belief has always been there. At the beginning of the first leg, I was being a realist as everyone would probably expect Zenit to go through, but what we showed in the first leg is that we're going to make it very difficult for them.

"They will be expected to go through over the two legs, so my mindset hasn't changed, but what we showed in the first leg is that if we play with our quality and to our level then we can match any team."

Mancini was equally bullish. All the players are ready and we don't change a lot," he said. I'm confident we'll play a good game."

The temperature in St Petersburg is predicted to fall to -13C by kick-off in the Krestovsky Stadium, but the roof will be closed. In any case, if Celtic score even one goal, their travelling fans will come home basking in the prospect of a spring flowering.

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